The Miami Beach

Convention Center shimmers and twinkles in the sticky Florida twilight. With the exception of godless Las Vegas, Miami Beach is the sexy, sultry capital of the United States. It's not the Miami we know today; a different time, a different place. Castro's revolution is five years old. Marijuana and cocaine are foreign words, not yet a part of the common vernacular. It's 1964.

The Convention Center sits on the south end of Miami Beach, one block west of flashy Collins Avenue, where every evening shiny new Cadillac traffic slows to a crawl as prosperous pedestrians, resplendent in furs and shiny jewelry, clog the sidewalks. Tonight, the Miami Beach Convention Center is the center of the universe, the vortex of the sporting world, where news agencies from around the world have gathered. Tonight, the building will witness a World Championship fight, a heavyweight championship bout in a time when there is only one title. A time when this title is the most prestigious sports honor a man can wear. February 24, 1964, our introduction to the last -- and probably the final -- great heavyweight champion the world will ever know. The bright marquee on Collins Avenue says, "Tonight, World Championship Fight, Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay."

Pay per view, crude and unreliable, was in its infancy. If you wanted to see this fight, you had to be there. I was there, along with my dad, way back in the $30 seats. Clay, a stupendous underdog, danced, jabbed, and finally, in a rapid-fire, staccato barrage of lightning punches that became his trademark, pummeled a confused Liston into submission. It is the beginning of the end for boxing.

From the beginning of time, cultures have satisfied some kind of collective psychological need through violent sport. It's a linear path, from the gladiators fighting before blood-crazed throngs in the Coliseum to the Miami Beach Convention Center. I accept this visceral need without really understanding it. I know it, because I still remember the way my heart was pounding that night. I accept it, because I sense the violent fantasies of everyman being carried in the hearts of these men.

Names like Corbett, Johnson, Dempsey, Tunney, Schmeling, Louis, Marciano, Patterson, and, finally, the menacing Liston (whose real-life persona of total evil made Mike Tyson look like a boy scout), all touched the pulse of the American public. These heavyweight champions spanned a period of time from the invention of the automobile to the pre-cable era of Ali.

Having said this, I say now that professional boxing is a sport which has outlived any purpose whatsoever. Boxing is a spectacle which should be outlawed and sent scurrying back into the rathole it comes from. Boxing has always been acknowledged as a sport for desperate athletes with the least hope. Track the history of American ghettos by looking at the boxing champs. First, the Jews and the Irish, the Italians, and then blacks, as they battled their way toward the American dream, otherwise unattainable, through exploits in the ring.

Who, but someone with little or no options, would choose to make a living literally having his brains beat in (see Ali) when he could be a doctor or writer or banker? The rationale that boxing provides an opportunity to climb out of inescapable poverty has long been a justification for boxing's existence. And for the first 60 years of the century, it was true. Until the Fifties there was no place for a black athlete to go. Baseball was an all-white, mostly Southern game until 1947, at the tail end of Joe Louis' 10-year reign. Professional football and basketball were obscure, mostly white, sports backwaters.

The result of this exclusion was a deep pool of fine athletes boxing in the heavyweight divisions. Not the sordid travesty it is now, precisely because there are so many more choices available to inner-city athletes today. At the very least, a decent athlete will be offered the opportunity of a college scholarship, something unheard of in Joe Louis' day. The kids who would have been fighting their way up in clubs around the country are playing halfback at Texas or center at Kansas. The best of them are playing middle linebacker for the Cowboys or power forward for the Knicks. Do you think Joe Louis, at a magnificent sculpted 197 pounds when he won the title in 1937, would have chosen boxing today? How about Muhammed Ali, a picture-perfect athletic package of great intelligence, speed, power, hostility, and size? The night he beat Liston, he weighed 210 lbs. Could you mold a more perfect free safety? Would Ali be Ali if he were 21 today? I think not.

I write this today, precisely because nobody died in the ring yesterday. There is no national hysteria today. But soon, someone will be, inevitably, savagely beaten to death in front of thousands of cheering fans. Do we as a society need this anymore? How can a civilized people justify and condone this sport? I am a longtime fight fan, but I've seen enough. Either clean up the sport of boxing, rid it of infestations like Don King and Mike Tyson, and put the fighters in headgear and bigger gloves, or ban it altogether. n Write me: coach@auschron.com

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